In Rio, office workers join the ranks of the homeless

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) –


Vilmar Mendonca used to be a human resources director for several companies in Brazil. Now he is homeless, sleeping outdoors along with thousands of other victims of the country's economic crisis.

Mendonca lost his job in 2015 and for a while, he lived off his savings. But now, at age 58, he sleeps on a bench outside Santos Dumont Airport in Rio de Janeiro.

He leaves some of his stuff at a bank where he is a client, cleans up in public restrooms and lives off food handed out by charity organizations.

"It is a terrible situation but I have no choice," said Mendonca, a thin, divorced man who has no children, as he looks at job offers on his laptop using the airport's wifi.

He wears stylish glasses, a dress shirt and nice shoes. He does not at all look like one of the thousands of other homeless people in this city of six million.

In late 2016, the Rio city hall said there were 14,279 people living in the street -- triple the number in 2013.

Dozens of them have advanced degrees, including Mendonca, who studied business administration in Sao Paulo.

His plight reflects the sting of a recession that has taken Brazil's jobless ranks up to 13.5 million people and tarnished Rio, a city that just a year ago hosted the summer Olympic Games.

"When you are like this, no one wants to come near you," said Mendonca.

Like many in his situation, he has not told anyone how far he has fallen, still hoping it will be temporary.

During the day he exercises, reads in cafes and book stores, posts on Facebook -- where his photo shows him in a suit and tie -- and goes to job interviews where he competes against hundreds of younger candidates.

By night, he puts on simpler clothes and a hat to go unnoticed and stretches out on a bench outside the airport, near its security cameras.

"I try to stay on my own so as to remain focused because if I start to hang out with others, I might get into things I do not want, like alcohol, drugs or filth," he said.

- Unpaid civil servant -

The homeless population is an especially common sight in Rio's most popular tourist areas, including Copacabana and Ipanema.

In the old quarter, groups of up to 20 homeless people take up entire streets every night, sleeping on cardboard and wrapped in blankets.

Most are black and come from poor backgrounds. Many are drug addicts, with psychological or family problems.

Among their ranks is a mix of people from street vendors to retired civil servants like Gilson Alves.

Alves, 69, worked for 35 years as an X-ray technician in Rio's public hospitals. But his pension payments were late and he ended up selling his belongings and giving up his rented apartment.

The tall, kindly looking man says he never had an easy life. At five, he was run over by a street car and lost a leg.

Two months ago he ended up on the street and the bag containing everything he owned was stolen. He was taken in by social services and transferred to one of the city's 64 shelters, which have room for 2,200 people.

"I feel sad, humiliated, struck down for having put in so many years and then being here because of this government," said Alves, who shares a room with six people of around his age.

- 'Critical' -

"The situation is critical," said Rio's social aid secretary, Teresa Bergher.

Many Brazilians came to Rio looking for work when the city hosted the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. But today oil-producing Rio state's coffers are empty, hit by corruption, low crude global prices and the Olympic bill.

Former state governor Sergio Cabral, whose 2007-2014 administration was crucial to preparing the World Cup and Olympics, was convicted of embezzling millions of dollars and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Part of the money recovered from him was used to pay back wages to 150,000 retired civil servants.

But the accounts are still in the red and help for the most vulnerable is insufficient.

"The swift increase in the number of homeless people in Rio is due mainly to the economic crisis but also to the lack of public policy," said citizens' ombudsman Carla Beatriz Nunes.

To fill the vacuum, networks of volunteers from churches and NGOs provide social services, serve breakfast and some even offer yoga classes to homeless people.

"Those of who are paying for the crisis are the ones with less money and less education," said Robson, a 43-year-old jobless construction worker.